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Recognizing An Ace

August 6, 2012, 10:00 PM by Erich Schaffhauser

Recognizing An Ace

Having shot down dozens of planes, you've likely heard about World War II hero Cecil Harris from Cresbard. Or have you?
Despite his impressive war record, the South Dakota native is relatively unknown. But a group of veterans is working to change that.

"It was just astounding what all he had accomplished during World War II," Gerald Krueger said.

Krueger was on the alumni board at Northern State University in the 1990s when he and others were looking for famous former students to recognize. That's when he came across Navy veteran Cecil Harris’ name.

Krueger hadn’t heard of Harris so he started researching the Cresbard native. Ken Schroeder of Rapid City came across Harris' name in 2007.

"I spent 30 years in the Navy and I had never heard of him. And I'm a South Dakota boy and I'd never heard of him. His service, Cecil Harris' service and mine overlapped by seven years and I had never heard of him," Schroeder said.

So he also started researching and couldn't believe what he found.

As a Navy fighter pilot, Harris shot down 24 enemy planes during World War II. Most of those came during a few month-stretch serving in the Pacific when he didn't even get a scratch on his own plane.

"Second highest scoring ace in the Unites States Navy; most highly decorated reserve pilot of the war," Schroeder said.

Stories behind those numbers surprised Schroeder and Krueger as well. In Murdo, South Dakota, Harold Thune can share plenty of Harris stories.

"There were a lot of good pilots. Most of the kids who were in were good pilots, but he was exceptional," Thune said. "He was just a cut above."

A Navy pilot himself, Thune served in the same squadron as Harris. Thune was even the best man in his wedding. But thanks to Harris' skill in the sky, their connection goes beyond that.

"He did teach me a tactic that probably saved my life," Thune said.

That was a tactic to avoid an enemy plane if one arrives on your tail. Thune is convinced Harris saved numerous other lives too. As the war played out, well-known war heroes surfaced; Thune says Harris ranks among them.

"Definitely, very definitely,” Thune said. “I don't know why he didn't get the attention."

And that's the question a group of people working to bring attention to Harris’ war record is asking.

People in the group have placed a sign near Harris' hometown of Cresbard. And the state highway leading to it is named after him as well.

They're half way into a fundraising effort to pay for a bronze of Harris to sit on the Northern State University campus.  Harris is no longer living but those working to get him more recognition are also trying to get him the Congressional Medal of Honor.

"This guy never really got the recognition we felt he deserves," Schroeder said.

"It wasn't like somebody was wounded and he picked them up and walked them through rifle fire to get them back or something like that. But just the accomplishments of what he did certainly were very noteworthy. And the Congressional Medal of Honor would not be out of line for him at all," Thune said.

Thune says Harris was given a training position beyond his rank during the war because he was such a successful pilot.  But he didn't draw attention to his accomplishments either. So Thune is pleased to see others doing so now.

"He was an inspiration,” Thune said. “You were glad to be a part of it."

Anyone interested in contributing to the fundraising effort for the Harris sculpture on the NSU campus can send contributions to:

Northern State University Foundation
620 15th Ave SE
Aberdeen, SD 57401

Make check payable to Cecil Harris Statue NSU Foundation.

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